It’s been a long time since Playboy Magazine dubbed Colfax Avenue the “longest, wickedest street in America,” and the 26.8-mile length of road leading from Aurora to Golden is not looking so wicked anymore. Since the street’s ignominious heyday in the 1970s, sporadic efforts to redevelop key corridors have led to a patchwork of old and new buildings, but they have not yet produced the sustained development necessary to permanently kick the street’s reputation to the curb.
One of those corridors, East Colfax, boasts a number of defining Denver businesses, including a Tattered Cover book shop and Twist ‘n Shout, the city’s oldest independent record store. Famous music venues like the Ogden Theatre and Fillmore Auditorium anchor major commercial blocks, while Colfax’s iconic neon signs garnish areas in between, marking mainstay businesses like Pete’s Kitchen and the Satire Lounge.
Our guide this week is Jimmy Balafas. He is the president of the board of the Colfax Business Improvement District (CBID), which runs for 24 blocks from Colorado’s Capitol complex to East High School. Balafas also is managing principal of the Kentro Group, a real estate company that owns around 60,000 square feet of property on Colfax.
Q: What were some of your first experiences on Colfax?
A: I actually went to elementary school on Colfax. As a kid, my father used to take me to Greek Town – a couple blocks east of East High School – and we would spend a lot of Saturdays eating breakfast there. That’s how I got to know the street.
In 2008, when we formed Kentro Group, we decided to set up our office on Colfax. It’s been a part of who I am since I was a kid and will be forever.
Q: What is Colfax to you?
A: It’s the heartbeat of the city. You have people from all walks of life going up and down Colfax. It’s very diverse, fun and energetic so it’s probably the best street for people-watching in the whole city.
Q: From the late 1800s up through 1950, Colfax famously had streetcars running up and down Colfax. In recent years, people have been talking about bringing a streetcar system back to the street. Do you think that’s a good idea? Is it feasible?
A: I think bringing back a street car is a great idea.
More importantly, we have a need to move people up and down Colfax. The 15 bus has the highest ridership across the whole RTD bus system, and the street is going to continue to be heavily used in the future, so having some type of trolley or bus rapid transit system to enhance people’s transportation on Colfax is going to be more and more crucial.
I prefer a trolley, but if we get anything, I would be happy.
The city is currently working on a bus rapid transit system, and they are tapping into federal funds to finance it. CBID is working with the city on that because we are slated to have two stops in our district: one around Ogden Street and one at Josephine Street.
The new system wouldn’t act like a normal bus. Riders would stand and wait on a platform, then walk onto the bus directly, so they don’t have to take steps up and down. That’s why it’s faster than a normal bus.
I think the new system might attract a choice rider, someone who would otherwise drive a car. The ridership should therefore increase, and hopefully that spurs development.
Q: Some people try to promote East Colfax as a center of Greek immigrant culture in Denver. What’s the basis of that effort?
Q: If you look it up in the city records, Greek Town runs from Elizabeth Street to St. Paul Street. It’s Denver’s only officially designated ethnic community.
When Greeks immigrated to Denver, they came to the center of the city, and this area of Colfax became a gathering spot. My father was a Greek immigrant, and he would always come down to these shops around the corner of Detroit Street and Colfax. He would come and hang out with his buddies.
You have a couple of Greek restaurants in the business district, and it’s just been a place where Greeks came since I can remember.
Q: Does Colfax present any unique challenges to developers and business owners?
A: Some of the lots in our district are a little shallow, and they abut residential lots. It’s hard to develop smaller parcels like that, and it’s been a challenge to our efforts to catalyze development.
But on the other hand, there are some big parcels available as well. Hopefully development is going to get underway soon at the old Smiley’s Laundromat between Downing Street and Corona Street on the south side of Colfax. It’s slated to be a great project.
Q: What about the stigma that’s left over from Colfax’s rough period in the 1970s and 1980s? Does that have any effect on developers?
A: Some people say Colfax is unsafe, sure. Back in 1989, that’s why we formed CBID: to keep Colfax clean and safe. So we have a board that works on behalf of business and property owners to maximize their stake in the district.
Since then, we’ve developed a maintenance operation that runs the district. In addition to placing trash receptacles on almost every block, we spend between 30 and 40 percent of our annual budget cleaning the street. This year, our budget is approximately $450,000, and that’s collected from all the property owners in the district.
In addition to the board, which is appointed by Denver’s mayor, we have two staffers. They are our voice, and they make things happen. They liaise with the city and the police department.
We also have a private security company that walks up and down the district during select hours.
Q: Are there any other exciting projects coming to Colfax that we should be keeping our eyes on?
A: We just completed a master streetscape plan. We hired StudioINSITE to build out a vision for the streets between Grant Street and Columbine Street, and we are planning to unveil that plan soon.
A big priority for us as a board is to finance this project. It’s going to cost approximately $10 million, and we hope it will spruce up the street while preserving its character. We think it will really perk up investment and development in the district.
And of course, we have the new recreation center going up at Josephine Street and Colfax. That’s going to be Denver’s central recreation center, serving approximately 55,000 people.
We also have a couple of properties for sale right now that have had a lot of interest: The Arby’s site at Colfax and York Street is vacant right now and slated for development; and the Laundromat project I mentioned earlier is slated to be a seven-story mixed-use apartment building with shared office space.
Q: What does the future of Colfax look like?
A: If you look up and down Colfax, you won’t find any vacancies. At Kentro, we did not have one tenant coming to us asking for a rent reduction or anything like that. The businesses on Colfax today are longstanding pillars of the community. It’s a tight market to enter, so if you are a restaurant looking to open, there’s a waitlist.
We are bounded by six great neighborhoods. If you look at the residents of those neighborhoods, they use Colfax, and they love it. I think if more opportunities arise through development, you’ll see those spaces filled quickly.